Elon recognizes faculty and staff for excellence with annual awards

These four awards recognize members of the Elon community for excellence in teaching, scholarship, civic engagement and mentoring.

Elon University recognized the excellence of members of the faculty and staff in their service to the university and the community at its annual awards luncheon on Wednesday.

Elon faculty and staff members gathered in Alumni Gym for the event, which also included recognition of employees for years-of-service milestones and special recognitions of faculty and staff members who are retiring this academic year.

The celebration came as Elon prepares to conclude another academic year, with exams for undergraduates to begin on Thursday, May 12, and undergraduate commencement to be held on Friday, May 20.

“It has been quite a run this year, but we made it,” President Connie Ledoux Book told the hundreds of faculty and staff gathered in Alumni Gym for the awards luncheon. “Job well done, Elon. This year every day, in so many ways, all of you do the right things. You do whatever it takes to fulfill our mission to have and see and witness and cheer on student success, and I am so proud and humbled by that commitment.”

Honored with awards from the university this year were Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies L.D. Russell, Associate Professor of Strategic Communications Vanessa Bravo, Associate Professor of Public Health Studies Stephanie Baker and Associate Professor of Anthropology Mussa Idris.

Daniels-Danieley Award for Excellence in Teaching

L.D. Russell, senior lecturer in religious studies

At the core of any higher education institution – or any educational establishment – is the relationship between its teachers and its students. L.D. Russell, a senior lecturer in religious studies, who “claims and inhabits the role of teacher,” one colleague wrote, has been named as the recipient of the Daniels-Danieley Award for Excellence in Teaching for the 2021-22 academic year.

“We consistently hear from students that LD facilitates life-changing intellectual opportunities, models intellectual values and the joy of inquiry, fosters respect for diversity and inspires them to think deeply about difficult subjects including religion, class, race, gender, nationality and politics,” a group of colleagues wrote on Russell’s behalf.

Russell has taught at Elon since 1993, focusing on areas of world religions and cultures. He also serves as the faculty co-leader for the Sacred Space in France Winter Term Program in Paris and Montpellier and chair of the Residentially Linked Faculty Subcommittee of the Global Neighborhood Association.

Russell’s efforts to make a meaningful connection with students go far beyond the classroom. Creating engaging and judgment-free spaces, giving time to the most outspoken of students to the most reserved, is a reputation that Russell has built during his nearly 30 years at Elon.

“In the spring of 2021, I struggled with my mental health. So, when registering for fall courses, both of my advisors recommended that I take LD’s class,” one current student wrote. “On the first day of class, it was clear that LD prioritized well-being and community over everything else. On a personal level, LD has become a trusted instructor, mentor and friend during my last year as a college student.

“LD is someone who dedicates his life to the intellectual and personal development of others. He is a selfless, kind and empathetic person who I am honored to know and continue to learn from,” that student added.

His inspiration and encouragement are not limited to the students he’s taught but the entire Elon community – which is exemplified by his essay, “To Soar Again,” written during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to encourage students and alumni during such difficult times.

Planning to begin his phased retirement next year, Russell has amassed a plethora of recognitions in his three decades of teaching, including but not limited to the 2018 Kathleen Connolly-Weinert Leader of the Year Award by the National Board of Theta Alpha Kappa, the 2016 Gerald Francis Faculty Member of the Year Award by the Elon Student Government Association and the 2008 Most Influential Professor Award by Sigma Phi Epsilon.

Currently, Russell is working on a book, tentatively titled “Into the Mystic,” which explores the various cultural manifestations of religion in the history of rock-and-roll.

“If you could know how much spending time with students in the classroom and out … has enriched my life, I honestly feel like the richest man in the world,” Russell said as he accepted the Daniels-Danieley Award. “I want to dedicate this award to my students. When I see prospective students and their parents … one of the things I say to them is Elon is a place where dreams come true.”

Russell is the 50th recipient of the award established by President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley ‘46 and his wife, Verona Daniels Danieley, in honor of their parents.

Distinguished Scholar Award

Associate Professor Vanessa Bravo, chair of the Department of Strategic Communications

Associate Professor Vanessa Bravo is a premier scholar in the fields of transnational communications and public relations, and chair of Elon’s Department of Strategic Communications. Her research is focused on how the governments in countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia use strategic communications to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with their diaspora communities, particularly those in the United States.

Bravo has built a strong, consistent and high-quality record of research since joining Elon in 2011 that contributes to a greater understanding of how the bonds between governments and diaspora groups are created, fortified, and in some cases, damaged.

“I care a lot about my research and I care a lot about the people who are the focus of my research,” Bravo said as she received the Distinguished Scholar Award. “Even though it’s not super mainstream, a place like Elon recognizes that it’s important and I so appreciate this.”

Given the connections that many migrants from Latin America to the United States retain with their home countries, Bravo has examined how home governments have benefitted from the economic support of diaspora communities and the ability of these communities to offer legitimacy and political backing to those home governments. She has explored how diaspora communities can serve as informal ambassadors of the home government, and how they can also damage the relationship between home and host countries.

In fall 2021, Bravo and Maria De Moya from DePaul University published the co-edited, peer-reviewed book “Latin American Diasporas in Public Diplomacy” that presents case studies of public diplomacy efforts involving diaspora communities either as supporters or adversaries of their home governments. It is the first of its type focused on diasporas from Latin America and brings together the work of a collection of Latin American scholars most of whom are members of diaspora communities.

Bravo views her research as supporting themes within the university’s Boldly Elon strategic plan around diversity and global engagement.

“In fact, the lens of global engagement and diversity interconnects all my professional activity, and this lens also connects my research to my teaching and my mentoring at Elon,” Bravo says. “My research is also connected to my personal experience of being an immigrant, in particular a Latina immigrant to the United States, and it affords me the special advantage of contributing to Elon as a faculty member who has the academic and the experiential understanding of the migrant experience and of the Latino experience.”

In a letter supporting Bravo’s nomination for the award, an Elon colleague wrote that Bravo’s research record “is representative of a prolific research stream that has cemented an international reputation as a public relations scholar specializing in Latin America and DEI issues. Collectively, these endeavors point to a scholar who is achieving excellence in research and whose work directly supports the Elon mission of ‘integrating learning across disciplines and putting knowledge into practice.’”

Along with her 2021 book, “Latin American Diasporas in Public Diplomacy,” Bravo has published 12 peer-reviewed journal articles, eight book chapters and two invited book reviews since joining Elon. She has presented 38 times at the preeminent conferences in her field, has received two “top paper awards” and has presented 14 times as an invited panelist at conferences and academic sessions.

A colleague from another institution notes in a letter of support for her nomination that Bravo’s work has influenced not only the views of researchers in the United States but of many others across Latin America. Bravo’s research and 2021 book “fill a large void in the public diplomacy literature because of its emphasis on diaspora groups,” the colleague notes. “Dr. Bravo represents an emergent class of scholars and teachers who came from Latin America to the United States to further their education and career progression. She belongs to a community of scholars who have dedicated their academic careers to documenting their areas of specialization from a Latin American perspective.”

After completing her doctorate in mass communications at the University of Florida, Bravo joined the faculty at Elon as an assistant professor of strategic communications in 2011. She was promoted to associate professor in 2017 and has served as chair of her department since 2020.

Another colleague pointed to Bravo’s work as a mentor and the impact that has had on her students, peers and researchers in the field. “Dr. Bravo has proven herself to be not only an exceptional researcher but a committed mentor who generously has collaborated with students, practitioners and faculty members alike,” the colleague says. “She always makes herself available to provide emerging scholars with advice and feedback, and she has organized and participated in several panels that provide opportunities for other underrepresented scholars to advance their research.”

Bravo is the 23rd recipient of the Distinguished Scholar Award, which recognizes a faculty member whose research has earned peer commendation and respect and who has made significant contributions to his or her field of study.

Periclean Award for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility

Stephanie Baker, associate professor of public health studies

An associate professor of public health studies, Stephanie Baker has consistently demonstrated her commitment to antiracism organizing and community-based participatory research in her teaching, service and research since joining Elon in 2015.

“My mentors in this work couldn’t even put the words ‘race and racism’ in the papers they wrote, in the grants they wrote or in the classes they teach. So to be able to come a generation later and to be acknowledged for my work is really gratifying,” Baker said as she received the Periclean Award. “I’m indebted to my community partners who hold me accountable every single day … because they really make me better. I wouldn’t be able to do this work without them.”

Nominated for the Periclean Award by a group that includes current and former students, colleagues and community partners, Baker is lifted up as one who has prioritized relationship development with the broader Alamance County community, leading those relationships to be strengthened and solidified over time. “She is a catalyst for change in addressing and removing structural barriers to good health that often result in health inequities/disparities for BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) community members,” the nominators write. “This is the essence of civic engagement and social responsibility — strengthening relationships and showing up when you are called on.”

A current student who Baker has mentored during her time at Elon points to the role she played in encouraging her to think more critically about public health issues impacting the local community. “Dr. Baker is one of the most civically engaged people I have ever met,” the student writes. “She thinks critically about community issues and constantly considers her positionality and encourages her students to do the same. She has helped me to create solid community partnerships in a responsible way while employing aspects of Community Based Participatory Research. Dr. Baker has guided me to apply my coursework to real-world situations in the local community, and I’m grateful to have such an amazing mentor that helps me to stay grounded in real public health issues.”

Baker joined Elon after receiving her doctorate in health behavior from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She soon agreed to serve as a member of the Advisory Council to address racial inequities in infant mortality in Alamance County. That role and her advocacy led members of the community to organize the Alamance Racial Equity Alliance, which now hosts quarterly workshops and training sessions.

Baker also requires her research students to attend racial equity training. “She understands that it is a critically important step to help them conduct their research with a contextual understanding of the historical and policy factors that undergird racial health disparities,” the nominating group noted in their letter of support. “Students have been transformed by their engagement with the workshop and many find ways to enter local organizing efforts as a result.”

With Assistant Professor Yanica Faustin, Baker is the co-founder of the Health Equity and Racism Lab, or H.E.R. Lab. The initiative’s mission is to advance the body of knowledge that illustrates racism as the root cause to health inequities and cultivate action toward undoing racism and improving population health. Its three focal areas are research, capacity building and advocacy/action.

She is a board member for Healthy Alamance and was invited to be part of the group due to her expertise in racial equity analysis. She is currently on the executive leadership team of the board. Baker serves on the Alamance Recovery Loan Oversight Committee, a group created by the Alamance Chamber of Commerce as a way to increase access to small business loans for communities of color.

As COVID-19 vaccines began being distributed, Baker worked with the Alamance County Health Department to help address the underrepresentation of Black and brown communities at vaccine clinics. She convened a meeting of local community stakeholders and went to work creating partnerships and commitments of organizations to prioritize the important needs of communities of color.

“She is a tremendous voice for racial equity in this region,” her nominators write.

Baker is the 20th recipient of the Periclean Award for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility, which is given each year to a member of Elon’s faculty or staff whose community service exemplifies the ideals of Project Pericles.

Steven and Patricia House Excellence in Mentoring Award

Mussa Idris, associate professor of anthropology

Cultivating a “constellation of mentors” is a key element to the Elon experience. The university has recognized Mussa Idris, associate professor of anthropology, as the recipient of the Steven and Patricia House Excellence in Mentoring Award.

“Dr. Idris is one of the best faculty mentors Elon University has ever had. Ever,” one colleague wrote. “He not only has a sustained record of committed, passionate, generous and high-quality mentoring ever since he started working full-time at Elon in 2014, but the outcomes of that mentoring are simply outstanding.”

It’s hard to refute that when Idris has mentored two Lumen Prize winners, two Leadership Prize winners and won the Faculty Excellence in Mentoring Award in 2019 from the Elon College, College of the Arts & Sciences, along with a plethora of other distinctions.

Idris began his Elon career in 2012, after spending eight years at the University of Florida as a teaching associate in anthropology and the institution’s Center for American Studies. Idris became a full-time faculty member in 2014, teaching undergraduate classes in anthropology, sociology and African studies.

During that time, he has also worked with a variety of local organizations including the Center for New North Carolinians and the North Carolina African Services Coalition, both in Greensboro.

“Without Dr. Idris’ deliberate emphasis on a student-led mentoring approach … I strongly believe that I would not have experienced the amount of personal growth and confidence in my research capacity,” a former student of Idris wrote. “His mentoring not only shaped my research but always shaped my ethnographic lens and reflexivity as a researcher – two things that I continue to carry with me and develop since I graduated from Elon.”

He is currently doing ethnographic research with newly resettled refugees from Sub-Saharan African countries in Greensboro, North Carolina with a focus on resettlement experiences and micro-enterprise initiatives.

“I am not the only student who has deeply valued their time with him and with whom he has kept up,” another student wrote in support of Idris for the House Award. “In an ideal world, every student would have an advocate, mentor, friend and teacher like Dr. Idris: someone with a strong set of values, who is an encourager and a partner in thought. It has been my honor and privilege to have him as a teacher and mentor.”

“I am just humbled. I have learned so much from Elon, from my department and the people that I’ve met here,” Idris said in front of his colleagues as he received the House Award. “I know this recognition can go to so many of you, and I just want to say thank you very much.”

Idris is the third faculty member to be honored with the Steven and Patricia House Excellence in Mentoring Award. The award is supported by a gift from Executive Vice President Steven House and his wife, Patricia, to celebrate excellence in student mentoring, one of the markers of quality that has fueled Elon’s reputation as the national leader in engaged, experiential learning.